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Jacob Kuriyan is a former scientist and currently conducts healthcare research in New Mexico, the location of Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos laboratory.
People who had the opportunity to interact with and work with the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ have fond recollections sparked by the Christopher Nolan film ‘Oppenheimer’. One such person is Jacob Kuriyan. Physicist Oppenheimer personally hired Kuriyan to work in his Princeton organization, the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), in 1966.
IAS is a research institute in Princeton that exists independently of Princeton University and was then led by Oppenheimer. Both John Von Neumann, the inventor of modern computers, and Albert Einstein lived there. There, Kuriyan was a junior participant.
After Kuriyan obtained a Master’s degree from Madras University, he did his PhD from Syracuse University. He joined Oppenheimer when he was just 25. “In fact, I was one of the last two appointments made by Oppenheimer to the physics group,” said Kuriyan.
Kuriyan was given a desk that was directly beneath Oppenheimer’s workspace. “I didn’t interact with him all that much. He was on his way to New York at the time for cancer treatment. He once traveled by train. I used to see him around, so one day I scheduled a meeting with him. He gave me his time extremely kindly. When I knocked on the door of his private office, he opened it, welcomed me inside, took me to a chair, pulled it out so that I could sit down, then sat in his chair across from the table. I can still recall that. How kind of you! That is something that he had that many others liked. We talked for almost an hour about physics”.
Oppenheimer, who was 62 at the time, was being treated for throat cancer. “He was a chain smoker, which is probably why he got cancer. Those who handled radioactive material at Los Alamos sometimes contracted cancer as a result. Ten to fifteen years after the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with cancer,” he said in a telephonic conversation.
Kuriyan prefers to think of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) as the ‘father of quantum physics in the US’ as opposed to the ‘father of the atomic bomb’.